Women in leadership positions: becoming an authentic leader

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File photo: African News Agency (ANA)

As a woman in a leadership position in the male dominated higher education sector, I am conscious of the paradoxes that we face. Women have to peel away layers of challenges, including and very often, racial stereotypes in addition to patriarchal hierarchy. It is encouraging that women in higher education are assuming governance positions because it paves the way for other women. Their stories serve to inspire and can be used as a leadership blueprint for others. As I moved up the ranks I have been privy to women’s conundrums, trying to maintain their authentic personality versus focusing on the task at hand.

The one academic leadership position that overflows with paradoxes is that of academic dean, as you are no longer truly a professor but not completely an administrator. Currently, across the higher education sector in South Africa, male dean numbers outweigh those of female deans. Deans are, in most cases, appointed on academic merit but have to perform largely an administrative role. They are expected to respond timeously and productively to continuous changes that currently characterise the university sector. In this rapidly changing environment it is not always possible to know everything, and thus deans should be willing to learn and be flexible. 

But what is dear to my heart is the ability to be an authentic leader. In 2013 I applied for the position of Dean in the Faculty of Community of Health Sciences at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). During my presentation I introduced myself as an authentic leader who has insight, demonstrates initiative, aims to exert influence and exercises integrity, but who most importantly leads by example. These principles have shaped my success and guided my values as a leader. I have used the lived experiences of peers, of pioneering women, to shape my journey. It is undeniable that a woman’s journey in the academic realm can only be strengthened by drawing on the experience of others. UWC has seven faculties with seven deans, three of whom are women. Here are their stories.

Keeping the balance between being a dean and being an academic is a challenging one. The portfolio of dean encompasses wide-ranging roles, responsibilities and functions. The dean is, among other things, required to craft and drive a vision for the faculty that supports teaching and learning, research and innovation, and community engagement. In addition, developing a people framework that is responsive to these key areas is paramount to success. At the same time, and given the tenured nature of the appointment, maintaining one’s relevance as an academic is key. 

To this end, the careful management of responsibilities and time are important to one’s success. I use my time constructively. I organise what I have to do in a day and set clear achievement timelines. I may not always meet these timelines, but it keeps me focused and working towards an end goal. I apply this principle of time management to my research agenda as well. I try my best to keep my diary clear of meetings and administrative activities, at least one day a week. This day I usually dedicate to writing or supervision of my postgraduate students. 

In addition, presenting a paper at a national or international conference at least once a year helps me to keep an active research agenda. I maintain my connection with my home department and continue to supervise a few doctoral and masters’ students. This also affords me the opportunity to contribute to the development of their research capacity, especially where we are able to co-author a publication after completion of the thesis. (Professor Michelle V. Esau: Dean of the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences)

Other opportunities of being in leadership include being able to influence change and position the faculty strategically within the University and broader society. Given the high levels of youth unemployment in the country, it is indeed a blessing to be part of a profession that can influence the lives of the youth and present them with the hope of a brighter future. Moreover, being in a faculty that hosts a number of scarce skills qualifications affords us the opportunity of contributing to social transformation in a very real and pragmatic way. Then there is the opportunity to identify and facilitate collaborative partnerships with industry, government and other relevant stakeholders towards a desired social, economic, political and technological future. I have also learned that while women in leadership are in the minority in our country, and even globally, it is more useful to consider your environment through a multi-layered lens. In my view, a gendered-lens provides one with a narrow perspective on reality and can be limiting in terms of one’s self-confidence to articulate views and effect change. At times I may be in the minority or even the only woman around the table. However, I choose to focus on the talents, experiences and knowledge of the individuals around the table, rather than their gender.

Finally, a work/life balance can be difficult, especially as one climbs the ladder. In the early stages of my career – especially when I was working toward my PhD – the support from my husband and parents were invaluable. They filled the gap when I was preoccupied with thoughts of my studies by assisting with my maternal responsibilities. However, as you climb the ladder, work can preoccupy one’s attention even more than a PhD study. Therefore, it’s important to make a conscious decision to be present when at home with family and loved ones. Checking emails and switching the laptop on can be very tempting. Resist the temptation, because loving memories are far more important treasures of the heart. I do not always get it right, but I try. I believe that I have been appointed for a specific purpose. Therefore, I have to use my time, talent, experiences and knowledge in a focused and decisive way, to the benefit of my faculty.

The position of dean is very demanding in terms of leadership and management, and it requires a strategy and energy to juggle the dual roles of being an administrator and a scholar. Being a dean at a research-intensive institution like UWC requires more effort to position yourself at the forefront of the research agenda of your faculty and of the institution, while ensuring the effectiveness and efficiency of the operational plan of your faculty.

Since I became the dean in 2017, I had to ensure that I remain research-active, not only to contribute towards knowledge generation within my area of research, but also to realise my faculty vision that emphasises excellence in teaching and scholarship towards a more informed and socially engaged citizenry. I aim to inspire my colleagues, and be a role model to the young and emerging academics and students at UWC and beyond.

I have been able to maintain a coherent research profile through my publications, postgraduate student supervision, research projects and external thesis examinations. I continue to apply for research funding and this challenges me to constantly think of innovative ways of conducting research that will involve teams inside and outside UWC. In this way, I am able to build a community of researchers (novice and experienced) with whom I engage and co-publish. This is a way of building capacity and mentoring young academics, while keeping abreast of the latest developments within my own research niche area. Being an active researcher enables me to command authority as an academic leader/scholar who leads by example. I continue to build capacity in emerging scholars and I participate in community outreach projects that are linked to my research and scholarship. Given the demands of the position, I’m able to achieve this through collaborative research activities.

My leadership approach combines administration with scholarship. I engage in innovative strategies to support research and oversee the implementation of these strategies to advance scholarship in my faculty. As women researchers, we have a responsibility to set realistic research goals and empower others to be leaders in their respective research fields. This calls for women leaders with a strategic vision, humility and a commitment to contribute towards a positive change in the research agenda of our institutions. However, I am aware of the judgmental attitudes towards women, especially black female leaders, with regard to their achievements in our patriarchal society. The negative stereotypes must not deter us from realising our strengths and capabilities in male dominated fields of research. We must learn from our mistakes and celebrate our achievements as change agents in our institutions and societies. (Professor Vuyokazi Nomlomo: Dean of Education)

I have more than 15 years of experience as an academic, educator and researcher. I have seven years of leadership experience holding positions as Head of Department, Deputy-Dean Teaching and Learning and currently, Dean since 2017. Journeying through the different leadership roles has allowed me the opportunity to consolidate skills at one level in preparation for the next level. It is however important to note that as I led a department or portfolio I had to maintain my status as a researcher and scholar, which was an important aspect in order to be a contender for the next level of leadership. On this journey through the various leadership ranks, one experiences being part of the same team that you find yourself leading. One’s level of engagement often changes gears.

In my position as the dean I had to find an innovative approach to lead a faculty, while I continued to be a competitive scholar. I maintain my research profile by building research teams and ensuring that my teams consist of emerging scholars and postgraduate students. My team and I collaborate on research projects, publications, applications for grant funding, engagement with international collaborators and supervision. Mentoring and coaching team members contribute positively to building capacity for the next generation of scholars. A saying I share with my team members – who are on their way to becoming renowned scholars – is: “Anything I have done, you can do better”.

As a woman leader I am aware of the importance of integrating work life balance. Operating within a supportive environment both at work and at home contributes to my success as a leader. Making a difference in the lives of others is something my family and I share, and together we encourage others to engage in accessing tertiary education to improve the lives of individuals, which improves the lives of families and subsequently communities. (Professor Anthea Rhoda: Dean of the Faculty of Community and Health Sciences)

As we consider the position of women as academic leaders, we may have some perception of how they should be, but real stories help us understand the paradox of academic leadership with a focus on women becoming examples of authentic leaders. As women in leadership positions at whatever level we may be, we should strive to be our unique, authentic selves. You may face some tensions and conflict, but staying true to yourself may, in the long term, shape your character as an authentic leader. Thus, through these lived experiences we want to encourage others to remain lifelong learners, to strive to be authentic leaders who build capacity in others, and authentic leaders who lead by example. Be ready to take the baton and pass it on to the next generation of leaders.

 

Professor Josè Frantz is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research at the University of the Western Cape.